Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"There is only you and your camera."

Simply carrying a camera around with me causes me to see things in a different way. I find that I start to notice details, interesting textures, plays of light and shadow, unusual shapes. I become a little more aware of the space around and between things. I frame everything in my mind as I move, searching for interesting compositions. The photograph I eventually take is only the last of a hundred that passed through my mind's eye before I actually pressed the shutter.

Carrying a camera makes me conscious of the act of really seeing what's around me. And man, have you looked around lately? There are some interesting things to see.

I finally caved and bought a DSLR. I put it off for a long time because of the expense. It seems like such a crazy extravagance. But considering how much satisfaction and inspiration I get from playing with it, perhaps it's not actually so superfluous.

I've only been out a couple times with it so far, just wandering aimlessly for the sole purpose of finding some interesting pictures to take, but it already feels like I'm getting to know the city better. Instead of just walking from point A to point B, lost in my thought, I'm actually paying attention. Seeing the streets I walk down, noticing the buildings, realizing how this place connects to that place. Forming a more substantial map in my head of how it all fits together. And the feeling of coming to know this city I live is a satisfying one.

The DSLR encourages experimentation, and that's what I love about it. Because you can snap away, hundreds at a time with no need to buy or print film, you start to get adventurous. What happens if you set the ISO to this and the f stop to this? What if you focus over there? What if you move the camera while you expose? What if you make this exposure way too long on purpose? You can shoot over and over, playing with the settings and seeing, immediately, the effects of each tweak. You can shoot until you get something you like, and simply discard all the failures. These are the reasons I bought a DSLR, and it was totally worth it.

It does give me the itch to get back to shooting actual film at some point, though. I'm a total tech geek, and I love gadgets as much as the next guy. I've been working on computers all my life and definitely appreciate the power and flexibility of tools like Photoshop. But I've got a soft spot for film. Film is substantial, it's physical. You get your hands on it and you get some paper and chemicals and light and you craft an actual physical object. Like any physical art it can be imbued with those touches and imperfections and happy accidents that are as unique as the fingerprints of the pair of hands that made them.

The digital, on the other hand, feels colder and more mechanical to me. I'm less impressed with gorgeous digital shots, because the cameras are so sophisticated and capable that sometimes it seems like the shooter doesn't need to do that much except point them in the right direction. If you want the kind of interesting visual flukes that can crop up in film printing - vignetting, odd areas of over or under exposure, the gritty noise of dust and scratches getting in there somewhere in the process - you have to mimic them with a Photoshop filter, and they're no longer happy accidents but design choices that can be tweaked and adjusted until they look ideal. And since there is no roll of film imposing any limit, you can snap away, hundreds of pictures at a time - no longer watching for and snatching out that one paticular moment but shooting all of them non-stop and then sifting through afterward for the keepers.

A film photograph feels like art, a digital photograph feels like documentation. At least some of the time.

I think my ideal scenario is to use the digital format to learn and become a more competant photographer, and then take that knowledge and apply it to shooting and printing film. When it comes to art, sometimes it's just way more satisfying to get your hands on it and make something real.